For she had a great variety of selves to call upon,

My dear, dearest Ginny,

What stroke me the most in Orlando (1928) was the fact that you were once again so unabashedly bold – for having written a fictional novel and called it a biography; for having invented a life around a woman you had an affair with; ultimately, for having played with her body, making its gender interchangeable, stretching her life over 400 years, and finally filling her body to the brink with your personal signature: granite and rainbow.

You playfully satirize the Victorian biographies’ attempt to objectively present the facts about their subjects’ lives. Your Orlando challenges the by then prevailing ideas of truth in biography, as well as the very idea that there is a single truth to one’s personality, to one’s gender, and ultimately to one’s life.

Moreover, instead of merely enumerating events and presenting Orlando’s documented ‘external life’, the ‘biographer’ in your novel is far more interested in shedding light onto the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings, her/his unrecorded internal life. “Up to this point (…) documents, both private and historical, have made it possible to fulfill the first duty of a biographer, which is to plod, without looking right or left, in the indelible footprints of truth (…) on and on methodically until we fall plump into the grave and write finis on the tombstone above our heads.”

By refusing to merely “plod without looking right or left”, your narrator deliberately takes a path far more successful to capture the essence of this biography’s subject – and this playful artifact further enables you to mock the Victorian idea of objectivity and neutrality. Orlando’s truth would be only a half truth – and one badly told at that -, if you had denied your narrator the use of his own subjectivity and imagination in relating to us the protagonist’s trajectory.

Moreover, imaginatition and subjectivity are inescapable for a biographer. You explore the connection between fact and imagination as two opposing forces – granite and rainbow – linked together by memory. “Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case,  often of the most incongruous,  (…) but has contrived that the whole assortment shall be lightly stitched together by a single thread. Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither.” By the end of your novel, it is not possible to determine fact from imagination: there is no distinction, and truth can only result from this very absence. Facts, when retold, have an utterly subjective quality, and the very act of chosing one event over another, even one source over another, and of putting the facts together in a given order, is a subjective one.

Your metaphor of granite and rainbow also appears in your review of Harold Nicholson’s Some People: “If we think of truth as something of granite-like solidity and of personality as something of rainbow-like intangibility and reflect that the aim of biography is to weld these two into one seamless whole, we shall admit that the problem is a stiff one and that we need not wonder if biographers, for the most part failed to solve it.” I suppose, my dear, Victorian biographies have no space for rainbows, and, because of that, they fail their own attempt to achieve granite-like solidity.

And in life, things do not fit so well together as they do in more conventional biographies; neither memory nor history can be easily put together and labelled as a biographer would want to. For instance, the biographee him/herself presents many selves. Even one’s personal experience of time is subjective. “For she had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may have many thousand…”

I like to think of his/her poem ‘The Oak Tree’ as the anchor which connects Orlando’s many selves together, as well as it is the artifact in which the narrative itself is anchored: when he is a boy, Orlando sits under an oak tree; when she is 36 years old, Orlando climbs to the tree to bury the poem.  The poem is also the place where Orlando anchors his/her heart, and he/ she carries it with him/ her in his/her breast throughout the novel. The poem’s writing style changes as Orlando grows old; it follows the literary tropes of the many times the protagonist inhabits, and mirrors the historical changes in literature.

The poem also changes as Orlando’s identity itself changes. Personality is not fixed, as gender identity itself also isn’t, and both can change and intermix throughout one’s life. Orlando made me recall, moreover, the idea of the ‘Androgynous Mind’ you explored in A Room of One’s Own. Everyone presents qualities socially reputed to be feminine and masculine; only the way one externally presents him/herself – his/ her performance, her clothes as you put it in your novel – keeps the gender label in its transitory place. “Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.” 

When her gender is changed, Lady Orlando feels at first not a bit different than she was before as a male. Only when she travels to England, in women’s clothes, she begins to feel the gender difference, expressed not in her own body, but in the way people react to her appearance, her female clothes. And only after that reaction she begins to act differently. Are you suggesting here that gender roles are not biologically given, but socially constructed – and furthermore, that they are not fixed? Or am I jumping too far ahead in my reading of your novel?

Do let me know, my dear. And expect to hear from me soon.

Yours truly,

J.


Romaine Brooks. Peter, a Young English Girl (The Artist Hannah Gluckstein aka Gluck), 1923-1924.
Romaine Brooks. Peter, a Young English Girl, 1923-1924.

“A woman knows very well that, though a wit sends her his poems, praises her judgment, solicits her criticism, and drinks her tea, this by no means signifies that he respects her opinions, admires her understanding, or will refuse, though the rapier is denied him, to run through the body with his pen.”
― Virginia Woolf, Orlando

“Was not writing poetry a secret transaction, a voice answering a voice?”
― Virginia Woolf, Orlando

“Better was it to go unknown and leave behind you an arch, then to burn like a meteor and leave no dust.”
― Virginia Woolf, Orlando

“As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking.”
― Virginia Woolf, Orlando

“Her eyes are pure stars, and her fingers, if they touch you, freeze you to the bone.”
― Virginia Woolf, Orlando

“For if it is rash to walk into a lion’s den unarmed, rash to navigate the Atlantic in a rowing boat, rash to stand on one foot on top of St. Paul’s, it is still more rash to go home alone with a poet. A poet is Atlantic and lion in one. While one drowns us the other gnaws us. If we survive the teeth, we succumb to the waves. A man who can destroy illusions is both beast and flood. Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth. Roll up that tender air and the plant dies, the colour fades. The earth we walk on is a parched cinder. It is marl we tread and fiery cobbles scorch our feet. By the truth we are undone. Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life—(and so on for six pages if you will, but the style is tedious and may well be dropped).”
― Virginia Woolf, Orlando

“For she had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may have many thousand…and these selves of which we are built up, one on top of the other, as plates are piled on a waiter’s hand, have attachments elsewhere, sympathies, little constitutions and rights of their own… so that one will only come if it is raining, another in a room with green curtains, another when Mrs. Jones is not there… and some are too wildly ridiculous to be mentioned in print at all.”
― Virginia Woolf, Orlando

“Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case, often of the most incongruous, for the poet has a butcher’s face and the butcher a poet’s; nature, who delights in muddle and mystery, so that even now (the first of November, 1927) we know not why we go upstairs, or why we come down again, our most daily movements are like the passage of a ship on an unknown sea, and the sailors at the mast-head ask, pointing their glasses to the horizon: Is there land or is there none? to which, if we are prophets, we make answer “Yes”; if we are truthful we say “No”; nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldy length of this sentence, has further complicated her task and added to our confusion by providing not only a perfect ragbag of odds and ends within us—a piece of a policeman’s trousers lying cheek by jowl with Queen Alexandra’s wedding veil—but has contrived that the whole assortment shall be lightly stitched together by a single thread. Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind. Instead of being a single, downright, bluff piece of work of which no man need feel ashamed, our commonest deeds are set about with a fluttering and flickering of wings, a rising and falling of lights.”
― Virginia Woolf, Orlando


About the book

 

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10 Comments Add yours

  1. heavenali says:

    I loved this last year when I read it. Virginia Woolf is so clever, inventive and sharp. I loved the way she played with time. I think her take on gender issues is fascinating.

    Like

    1. juliana says:

      Yes, it is fascinating, and so ahead of her time. Thank you for hosting #woolfalong, Ali! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve always been a bit scared of Orlando, but I adored Mrs Dalloway and your review makes me think I should give it a go. Brilliant as always.

    Like

    1. juliana says:

      Thank you, Cathy! I highly recommend Orlando, and I think, in a way, it reads far more easily than Mrs Dalloway!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. See, now you’ve sold me.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Liz Dexter says:

    I adore this book, particularly because parts are set around Knole, which I know well, having grown up near there. I do want to re-read this for #Woofalong!

    Like

    1. juliana says:

      Do reread it, it is fascinating! I might try to read another book for #woolfalong, too, but I am not sure yet which one. Thank you for coming by, Liz! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. ms. arachne says:

    This is probably my favorite Woolf novel. It’s just so much fun to read and I loved the way Orlando changes with the times. Lovely review and I think you may be spot on about Woolf’s take on gender.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. juliana says:

      Thank you, Ms. Arachne! Woolf is one of my favourite authors, and this book was so funny and bold, so ahead of its time!

      Liked by 1 person

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